Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella Venus in Furs is a literary accomplishment that has held sway over human sensibility ever since it was written. Originally part of a series that was to be called The Legacy of Cain, it was part of the first volume: Love.
But love features little, or so it would seem, in David Ives’ play that had its Off Broadway premiere in 2010. An exhausted playwright and first time director is struggling to find his leading lady for an adaptation of the Sacher-masoch novella. Thomas (Craig Hall) is a smug playwright with a tendency to be frustrated easily by women who have opinions and is weary as the end of his casting session has given him no hope of finding his leading lady.
Thunder crackles and as rain drips outside a gust of wind blows in a late-comer prepped with props, costumes and expletives refusing to take no for an answer. Vanda (Morgan O’Reilly) appears to be no different to any other aspiring actress desperate to have a lead role in a play that might just rocket her career to success. She doesn’t appear to be overly familiar with the script or even with Thomas’ other works but her enthusiasm is infectious.
When she finally does convince her none-too-eager director to allow her to read for him there is an unexpected shift. Suddenly this Vanda – who coincidentally shares her name with the central character of Wanda von Dunajew – transforms before our eyes and what follows in a single act is an exchange that toys with who owns the most sexual power at any given moment.
Herein lies the main issue with this Auckland Theatre Company production. It is not about the talents of the two leads (and Morgana O’Reilly in particular is remarkable) or even Shane Bosher’s meticulous direction but the fact that the narrative fails to realise that it is the charged power-play between two characters that offers heightened erotic appeal – not glimpses of cleavage or black lace.
David Ives’ drama is at best melodramatic and the quasi-realism production with its meta-theatrical element is only further irritated by the fact that Vanda must resort to every trick in the book – again a direction that O’Reilly delivers exceptionally well. Ives’ script explores the murky territory between directors and actors, masters and slaves, men and women, but is so bloated by faux attempts at feminism (without even recognising the multiple forms and expressions of the movement) that its grand finale succeeds only in reiterating clichés – complete with effects.
Both O’Reilly and Craig Hall demonstrate a praiseworthy capacity to slip between the characters they play and those of the script they are reading. Those moments are well executed but still lack conviction and chemistry, occasionally looking no better than a highly polished line-run.
Rachael Walker’s set design is beautifully detailed and replete with Freudian chaise while Elizabeth Whiting’s costumes are fitting the contemporary style of the production as well as its 19th century original novella. Sean Lynch and Paul McLaney lighting and sound designs are seamless – even if the rumbles come a little bit too often and too pat.
Bosher is an exceptionally talented director but the original depth of the novel, which admittedly was never that well translated into the play, has vanished rendering it almost a comic farce suitable for garnering titters and stolen glances.
Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Fur simmers with a dark brooding magic. To appreciate the original author’s creative inquisition into the dynamics between men and women does not require anything more than a relentless desire to pursue the truth. Sadly, in this well directed and performed production, that is nevertheless a quality in scarce supply.